Learning Pruning, by Doing

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched growers debate which cuts to make on trees. Most of those discussions seem to take place on an orchard tour in freezing cold weather, which adds to the ambiance. A lot of thought is put into exactly which limbs should be removed in order to create the ideal canopy. The tough part is, what’s ideal to one grower isn’t necessarily ideal for another.

Hence the deliberations.

So when Jim Schupp of Penn State University told me last year that his simplified pruning rules were designed so “anyone could use them,” I thought, “If you say anyone can do it, what about me?”

(See how the pruning rules tie to robotic dormant pruning projects in this month’s cover story.)

I made arrangements to pay a visit to the Fruit Research and Extension Center (FREC) in Biglerville, PA, and learn to make dormant cuts using these simplified rules. I’m not sure if Jim took me seriously, but I leaped at the opportunity to get out in the field.

One early March morning, I set out with Jim and Research Assistant Edwin Winzeler to put Jim’s rules to work on some ‘Fujis’ he saved just for me.

It’s surprising just how quickly my eyes became calibrated to the rules. I think it took only two trees for me to determine what limbs needed removal — with high accuracy (If I do say so myself).

The rules were incredibly easy to remember. I had to look at the laminated card at first, but after that, I was able to determine which limbs were too big — Rule 1 — without the help of the caliper.

“That tree looks better already,” Jim would say after just finishing the first rule — which he estimates is about 70% of the pruning cuts needed on each tree.

From there, it was fairly easy to assess which limbs were hangers or risers — Rule 2.

Spacing out the remaining limbs — Rule 3 — took some consideration, but I usually opted to take the older limb, as opposed to a younger one nearby.

Often, I’d ask for Jim’s advice when it came to this rule, and he’d tell me the most important part was that I was making some kind of cut. He emphasized that simplifying the canopy — not the deliberation over which cut to make — is the most important step.

Then, creating a simplified limb — Rule 4 — was pretty easy to accomplish.

Having a guide to help with the decisions allowed me to approach pruning in a much more scientific manner. I wasn’t making a couple of cuts and then looking at the tree — I had a mission with each rule and those missions were easy to understand and accomplish.

And Jim was right, the trees looked completely different once I had applied all the rules. He says this makes the pruning less art and a lot more science.

“We still want to think there’s an art to it,” said Tara Baugher of Penn State University’s Fruit Production Extension Team, who helps promote the pruning rules to growers in the state.

I have to agree with Tara. While the instructions are more precise, I have a newfound appreciation for the work that goes into dormant pruning, and I might even have my own opinions about how you’ve pruned your tall spindle trees.

Watch out for me on the next winter orchard tour. I’m bringing my loppers.

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